Nixon v. Fitzgerald 1982

Author:Daniel Brannen, Richard Hanes, Elizabeth Shaw

Page 931

Petitioner: President Richard M. Nixon

Respondent: Ernest Fitzgerald

Petitioner's Claim: That a president should not be held legally liable for his actions while performing the duties of his office.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Herbert J. Miller, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: John E. Nolan, Jr.

Justices for the Court: Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: June 24, 1982

Decision: Ruled in favor of Nixon by holding that the president possesses absolute immunity from civil lawsuits while performing his official duties

Significance: The ruling expanded the principle of executive immunity first recognized by the Court in 1867. The president holds "absolute immunity" from civil liability for actions taken during the course of carrying out his constitutional duties. The Court held that the presidency is a special office worthy of special protections against civil lawsuits.

Page 932

The first key U.S. Supreme Court ruling on executive immunity, Mississippi v. Johnson (1867) came amid the bitter years of Reconstruction. Congress and President Andrew Johnson (1865–1869) were attempting to carry out policies to rebuild the nation following the Civil War. Executive immunity shields the president from judicial (the courts) interference as he exercises his executive powers. In Mississippi, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase acknowledged that, according the ruling in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Court could order a president to perform a ministerial duty. A ministerial duty is a simple, specific duty to carry out a government function. This type of duty requires no political interpretation or judgement. But, Chase explained presidential actions which did involve political judgements were beyond the reach of judicial interference. In Mississippi the Court had been asked to stop President Johnson from carrying out an act passed by Congress, an activity which would require the president to make judgement calls. This, Chase said, the Court could not do. It could neither require the president to take specific action nor, on the other hand, prevent him from acting in such situations. This ruling had its roots in the Constitution's system of separation of power—allowing the three branches, executive...

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